Friday, 8 May 2015

The use of social media in New Zealand’s cultural heritage community: in which I use Twitter for research instead of procrastination

By popular demand (from Auckland Museum on Twitter, no less) , here's my final assignment from the Social Informatics paper I took last semester, published here verbatim. I pulled an A+ for it, which hasn't ceased to surprise me as I still cringe slightly in places as I read it, but hey.

Don't plagiarise; stay in school, kids.  

Social Informatics, Assignment 3 – Case study
The use of social media in New Zealand’s cultural heritage community

This case study will investigate the use of social media in New Zealand’s museum and heritage sector. Throughout the country, there are hundreds of heritage institutions of all shapes and sizes, ranging from small-scale local groups with limited funding, such as district museums and family history archives, to the large and iconic tourist destinations, such as Te Papa and Auckland Museum. Social media usage has provided an opportunity for these groups to project a less academic and more welcoming image to the general public. It also creates an opportunity for geographically separate institutions to share and collaborate with the wider heritage community. While the possibilities of Web 2.0 over the last decade, particularly Facebook and Twitter, have been eagerly snapped up by the larger and well-funded establishments, much of the heritage sector in New Zealand remains charity-based and run by volunteers. This lack of funding and manpower can mean that smaller heritage institutions are slower to adapt to social media, and sometimes miss out all together. This case study will look at the setting of the New Zealand heritage sector community and its use of social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook.
Social media provides a cheap and effective way for heritage groups of any size to spread their message to the world. Unlike traditional television or paper-based media, the internet allows groups to share their news, images and videos instantly with the public, removing the middleman from interaction between the group itself and the wider community. In museum professional Nina Simon’s blog, Museum 2.0, Simon discusses the ‘threshold fear’ a portion of the general public feels about physically entering museums and heritage sites – the intimidation and fear the puts off someone not already familiar with a cultural institution from visiting it (Simon, 2012). Using social media effectively can destroy some of these barriers to entry the public may perceive around heritage institutions – instead of perpetuating the stereotype of stuffy and cold museums where people can look but not touch the objects, a well-run social media campaign can present a museum as a vibrant and fun place, where the public are welcome to explore and learn. Social media in museums can create an ‘an open-ended cultural information space’ where the wider community is welcomed to discuss and learn, adding to the museum experience as a whole (Russo, Watkins, Kelly and Chan, 2006, pp.6-8).
Waikato Museum’s page on Facebook is a typical example of this. Content is regularly updated with photographs of what is happening behind the scenes, reminders of upcoming events, interesting historical facts and pictures of exhibitions. All of this is presented in a casual and conversational tone, allowing the public to add their own feedback and ideas. The museum also has accounts with Twitter and YouTube, and in the past has experimented with image-sharing sites Flickr and Pinterest.
Social media in general is often perceived as the domain of young people, and it is true that websites which provide instant content to their users, such as SnapChat and Instagram, attract a young demographic. Overseas, these websites are being picked up by museums for sharing content (Blanton Museum, 2014), but New Zealand institutions have been slower to pick up that trend. Facebook, however, has gained a reputation as the benchmark for social media presence. While many institutions have a Facebook page among various other social media platforms, it is rare to use other platforms as a substitute for having a Facebook presence. As Facebook becomes more ubiquitous in Western culture, it is becoming more and more common for older demographics to have personal accounts on Facebook, meaning historical institutions can use the website to reach a wide and diverse audience.
While social media accounts are free to set up and do not require any financial outlay, unless content is sponsored to reach more people, maintaining an online presence can require a lot of time and skill. Particularly for sites such as Twitter, where new content can quickly disappear from users’ newsfeeds, social media administrators need to be constantly on the look-out for relevant material to share with their followers. Keeping an eye on how followers respond to new content also takes a lot of time, as a derogatory comment left unchecked can damage an institution’s reputation (Russo, Watkins, Kelly and Chan, 2006, p.6). New technology aimed at streamlining the process of maintaining social media accounts, such as Hootsuite social media management and the Facebook Pages app for iPhone, makes social media easier, but relies on a high level of digital savvy from the administrator.
Social media can be used by museum staff to communicate amongst themselves and with the staff of other historical institutions, as well as with the general public. Twitter in particular tends to act as an informal space where different institutions can debate and discuss. Internationally, the #museumhour and #heritagehour hashtags are popular examples of Twitter being used for professional discussion and collaboration. #museumcats, on the other hand, is a hashtag which provides an opportunity for these same museums to play with each other, and show off the collections. The international #museumcats trend is a prime example of this in the New Zealand context. Originating overseas, the aim of the hashtag was to share an image of a cat in a museum – whether it was a real cat, a cat-shaped object or an image of a cat from the museum’s collection was for individual museums to decide. Once one New Zealand museum shared a cat picture using the hashtag, other museums were challenged to beat them with their own image of a cuter cat. This trend was an opportunity to share the museums’ collections with their Twitter audiences, by taking advantage of the popularity of cats on the internet.
While #museumcats was a local continuation of an international trend, the creation of Twitter game #OneThread demonstrates how New Zealand museums are using Twitter for original ideas and working together to promote the whole sector, not just themselves, in social media. #OneThread, according to Auckland Museum’s website, is a ‘spot-the-connection’ game for the public, where participating GLAM sector institutions (galleries, libraries, archives or museums) post daily clues on their Twitter accounts. These clues are usually items from each institution’s collections. The clues all have one thing in common – the one thread which connects them all – which the public then has to guess using the #OneThread hashtag (Auckland Museum, 2015).
The first game of #OneThread took place between February 11th and 13th 2015, with Auckland Museum, Te Papa, Waikato Museum, and The Nelson Provincial Museum posting daily clues. It attracted a small but determined response from the public, with a group of postgraduate students from Victoria University going so far as to print each clue out and tweet their progress (Driver-Burgess, 2015). Auckland Museum’s website implies rounds of #OneThread are intended to become a weekly feature of the museums’ Twitter communication.
Elsewhere in the heritage sector, social media usage is not so prevalent. Contrasting the above examples with the heritage institutions in Thames, on the Coromandel Peninsula, demonstrates the difference size and funding makes to a heritage institutions use of social media. As a historically significant area of the Auckland province, Thames has an abundance of historical institutions. One street alone holds three different museums – Thames School of Mines and Mineralogical Museum, Thames Historical Museum and Bella Street Pump house – as well as The Treasury archive and family history research centre. While Thames School of Mines has some paid staff, the majority of staff at these four institutions are volunteers. Most of these institutions receive funding through donations, public membership and grants.
Within this group, social media was not used until August 2014, when a planning session for The Coromandel Heritage Trust, which runs The Treasury project, highlighted a need to engage with social media and attract more young people to The Treasury. The majority of Trust members at this meeting were supportive of the idea of The Treasury having a Facebook page, but some expressed concern that no one involved with The Treasury would have the technical knowledge to set one up. The page was eventually launched in October 2014, under the administration of the only member of the committee who was a regular user of Facebook. In The Treasury’s context, having a younger volunteer aboard the project allowed them to set up a Facebook presence similar to Waikato Museum’s page. As of February 2015, the page has 132 likes, most of which are from people outside of Thames who may otherwise not have heard of The Treasury, and content reaches 1646 people a month. The Facebook page has given The Treasury a much loader voice on an international scale than it previously had. However, it remains the only Facebook page set up for any of the Thames heritage intuitions mentioned above.
New Zealand’s major historical institutions have been quick to get on the social media bandwagon. American museum professional Nina Simon, on her blog Museum 2.0, calls Twitter a ‘hybrid broadcast/communication platform - part blog, part instant messaging system... In short, Twitter provides opportunities for genuine conversations with visitors’ (Simon, 2008). The larger museums of New Zealand’s heritage community have recognised this and turned Twitter to their advantage; not just as a venue for genuine conversations with visitors, as Simon suggests, but as a venue for conversation within the sector. Games like #OneThread take Twitter beyond being a blog or instant messaging system; becoming something that is part multi-institutional team-building exercise, part conversation-starter for history enthusiasts and problem solvers, and part participatory gallery extension where the museums and the public discuss collection items which are not necessarily physically on display in their gallery spaces.
With secure funding from central or local government, hiring marketing staff specifically to manage an online identity is becoming standard practice for large museums. Waikato Museum, for example, included a full-time position for a Social Media Coordinator in their Partnership and Communication Team, after their restructure in 2013 (personal communication, 2013). The funding these large institutions run on allows them to employ young and technology-savvy staff, who can successfully navigate the environment of social media. Large institutions have come to recognise the importance of having a professional online presence in recent years. The advantages of taking part in a Twitter game like #OneThread or #museumcats can only really be realised by a dedicated staff member who can quickly respond to new quickly-changing content.
Small-scale historical groups and local museums, on the other hand, generally tend to be run by groups of enthusiastic amateurs. The work in these settings generally lends itself well to retired people, looking for a volunteer role relevant to their interest in history. This demographic has the free time and secure income needed to be an ideal volunteer. While retired people working as volunteers can bring a multitude of skills to their heritage institutions, they are not necessarily people with formal training in the heritage sector. Consequently, many of the skills required in the heritage sector are leant on the job, as the need arises, and work which is not a necessity is often set aside due to lack of staff and funding. Jobs such as marketing, the banner under which social media tends to be included in large organisations, tend to fall by the wayside unless a suitably skilled person volunteers their time.
With far fewer young people than retired people choosing to volunteer in the heritage sector, there are fewer ‘digital natives’ to rely on to create any sort of online presence. Statistics for the 2006 New Zealand Census, which covered volunteering in any sector, showed that 9.7% of all volunteers were aged 15-24, compared to 22% in the 65-74 age group (Statistics New Zealand).  Observational evidence suggests the gap between these two figures widens within the heritage sector specifically.
The Thames example illustrates this well. Out of five volunteer-run historical institutions - three museums, one archive and one historic tourism operation in the town – only three have a dedicated organisation website, and the only one with a Facebook page is the archive. The archive also appears to be the only group with a committee member under the age of thirty. In this part of the heritage sector, groups without a digitally-aware volunteer miss out on the benefits of the digital world.
It can be argued that these small volunteer-run heritage institutions do not need a social media presence – after all, they are run by older volunteers who may not necessarily want to engage with social media on a personal level. Stoecker (2005) suggests we take caution when considering a community informatics approach, where information and communication technology can easily be viewed as the sole solution to all of a community’s problems, instead of a tool to potentially help towards solving them. Community informatics is yet to demonstrate how the impact of information and communication technology, such as social media, affects local communities beyond the individual (Stoecker, 2005, p.7). However, the positive impact social media has had on communication between the larger groups in the heritage community and their public is clear evidence of the positive impact social media could have for the entire heritage community. Small institutions with social media skills could call on the knowledge of other small groups, and their larger counterparts, to improve the running of their own institutions. This is already happening on a small scale for The Treasury in Thames, which networks with the groups New Zealand History Federation and Thames NZ: Genealogy and History via Facebook. These opportunities for support and collaboration are less frequent outside of information and communication technology.
It is interesting to see how social media has been adopted and adapted by different groups in New Zealand’s museum community. While cultural institutions are usually run as non-profits and are funded through outside support, the divide between the haves and have-nots within the sector is clearly illustrated by who does and does not use social media. Well-funded institutions use social media to keep in touch with both their local community and the wider heritage sector community. Volunteer-run institutions, on the other hand, are less likely to have any sort of social media presence, even when they have the same needs and aspirations as their larger counterparts.
Social media can be perceived as ‘democratising’ the internet – anyone can set up a page or profile and share their content with a wide audience. Websites such as Twitter and Facebook are free to use, unless the user chooses to pay for extra advertising, and have the capacity to quickly and easily share images, information, video and links. However, funding, expertise and generation gaps still limit the use of social media among volunteer-run institutions. Without the ability to hire someone to maintain an online presence, institutions which are not fortunate enough to have a volunteer with the right skill set are left out of the digital landscape.
The use of Twitter by New Zealand’s large cultural institutions demonstrates the potential of social media for the whole sector. Hashtags like #OneThread and #MuseumCats on Twitter allow the museum community to learn, discuss and share with each other as well as the general public. This helps to present cultural institutions as spaces open to everyone, unlike the prevalent stereotype of museums as uninviting spaces. On the whole, volunteer-run institutions miss out on these benefits.

Auckland Museum (2015). #OneThread. Retrieved from

Blanton Museum (6th October 2014); The Art of Snapchat,’ Blanton Blog

Driver-Burgess, F. [@wordgazing]. (11th February 2015) ‘@robbasaurusrex and rest of Stout
                        Centre postgrads totally focussed (unfortunately not on our research)

Russo, A.; Watkins, J.; Kelly, L.; Chan, S. (2006). ‘How will social media affect museum
                        communication?’ In Proceedings Nordic Digital Excellence in Museums (NODEM),
                        Oslo, Norway.

Simon, N. (8th February 2012). ‘Come On In and Make Yourself Uncomfortable.’ Museum 2.0

Simon, N. (1st April 2008). ‘Cocktail Party Participation: Revisiting Twitter.’ Museum 2.0

Statistics New Zealand (2006). Census. In Ministry of Youth Development, ‘Age Differences,
                        Volunteering,’ Youth Statistics: A Statistics Profile of Young People in New

Stoecker, R. (2005). Is community informatics good for communities? Questions
confronting an emerging field. Retrieved from php/ciej/article/view/183/129

The Treasury – Thames. Facebook.

Waikato Museum | Te Whare Taonga o Waikato, Facebook,

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